- Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged with 52 counts related to pulling over drivers, planting drugs like meth on them, and arresting them.
- Nearly 120 cases involving Wester have been dropped, and more are being reviewed.
- While some victims are pleased with the charges, many others who served time or received probation because of his actions feel that the damage is already done.
- In one case, a victim lost custody of a child, and in another, a victim was forced to serve a year in rehab.
Former Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester was arrested and charged Wednesday for pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions, planting drugs on them, and then booking them for possession.
According to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Wester was arrested on “felony charges of racketeering, official misconduct, fabricating evidence, possession of a controlled substance and false imprisonment.”
This morning, FDLE arrested former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy Zachary Wester on a litany of charges, including racketeering, fabricating evidence, and false imprisonment. #arresthttps://t.co/9McYv4FT6G pic.twitter.com/fkO1oRcJCs— FDLE (@fdlepio) July 10, 2019
He was also charged with “misdemeanor perjury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia,” the statement said. Together, Wester faces a total of 52 separate charges.
It is unclear how much prison time he could get. The Washington Post reported that State Attorney William Eddins, who oversaw the case, told reporters Wester could face up to 30 years.
The Tallahassee Democrat said that the racketeering charge alone has a max penalty of 30 years, and the other felonies have max sentences of five years.
However, they also reported Eddins saying that under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Wester would only face 13 and a half years if found guilty on all charges, noting that a judge could give him more.
While Wester was only arrested on Wednesday, the charges against him came as part of a nearly year-long investigation.
Wester was reportedly hired by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. In August 2018, the Sheriff’s Office asked the FDLE to launch an internal investigation into his conduct after a prosecutor found inconsistencies between his reports and what was captured on his body camera.
Specifically, prosecutors said he turned his body camera off most of the time, and only turned it back on after he had already found the drugs in the vehicles he was searching.
Additionally, in most cases, Wester would pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction and then ask them if he smelled marijuana, which would give him probable cause to search their car.
Despite the fact that Wester would write in his reports that he smelled or thought he saw marijuana, he would usually turn his camera back on to show he found meth.
Even in cases where the people he pulled over actually were suspected of crimes or admitted to having marijuana in the car, Wester still planted the meth, according to the affidavit.
As a result of the investigation, Wester was suspended on Aug. 1 and then fired a month later. Prosecutors said they would not file charges until the FDLE investigation was complete.
The investigation took a while because there was a lot of evidence to review. According to the FDLE statement, during the investigation, their agents, “analyzed over 1,300 minutes of recorded video and logged over 1,400 working hours on the case.”
In that footage, the investigators found one of the few instances where he kept his body camera on during a search.
In that incident, Wester had pulled over a woman named Teresa Odom, claiming her brake lights were not working properly.
In the bodycam footage, Wester is seen holding something that looks like a small plastic bag in his hand. He then puts his hand out of view under the driver’s seat and returns it without the baggy.
Wester later booked Odom for possessing meth.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, deputies who searched Wester’s patrol car during the investigation found “42 pieces of drug paraphernalia, ten baggies of methamphetamine and five baggies of marijuana concealed in an unmarked and unsecured evidence bag in the trunk.”
The Tallahassee Democrat also reported that prosecutors reviewed nearly 300 cases that involved Wester, and dropped the charges in nearly 120 cases, including Odom’s.
However, Eddins said that there was no evidence that Wester planted drugs or fabricated arrests in all of the cases, and noted that the charges are based on his arrests of 11 known victims named in an affidavit, though there might be more.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” he told reporters Wednesday. “There’s a substantial amount of work to be done. But I have no belief that there’s anywhere near 100 victims. We may have identified most of the victims, we may (have) not.”
“There is no question that Wester’s crimes were deliberate and that his actions put innocent people in jail,” Chris Williams, the FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the case said in a statement.
Though many cases have now been dismissed, for a lot of people, it is too little too late.
In 2017, a man named Benjamin Bowling lost custody of his daughter after he was convicted on felony charges for possessing meth that Wester said he found in his car.
At the time, Bowling had been released from prison a few months earlier and was being drug tested. Bowling also reportedly requested that the Sheriff’s Office turn over the bodycam footage and test the drugs for DNA and fingerprints, but they never did.
The same year, a man named Jeffrey Helms and his girlfriend April Middleton were also pulled over by Wester and arrested for possessing meth.
Middleton reportedly was in jail for a few weeks before being released, but Helms, who had prior charges, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Unfortunately, that is not even where the damage Wester did to the Helms family stops. Jeffrey Helms’ sister-in-law Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat in September that her own brother was also arrested by Wester for possessing meth.
Although his charges were dropped after Wester’s arrest, it was not done until after he was forced to spend a year in residential rehab.
“He’s ruined lives,” Erika Helms told the Tallahassee Democrat. “People are losing their lives, their freedom, their children, their marriages — all because of this one man. It’s not just innocent men. It’s innocent children. It goes a lot deeper than everyone realizes.”
See what others are saying: (The Tallahassee Democrat) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)
FDA Authorizes Moderna and J&J COVID Vaccine Boosters, Approves Mix-and-Match Doses
The approval will allow at-risk Americans who received Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to get any booster six months after their initial series and all Johnson & Johnson recipients 18 and older to do the same two months after their single-shot dose.
New FDA Authorization
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized boosters shots of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines and approved a mix-and-match strategy that will allow people who got one company’s shot to get a booster from a different maker.
The decision paves the way for millions of more at-risk Americans to get extra protection, and not just certain Pfizer recipients as previously approved by the FDA.
Under the authorization, people who received Moderna or Pfizer can get any one of the three booster shots six months after completing their initial series if they are 65 and older, at high risk of severe COVID, or face increased exposure because of their work.
Meanwhile, all J&J recipients 18 and older can get any of the approved vaccines two months after they received the one-shot jab.
Hazy Recommendations, For Now
Notably, the FDA did not recommend a certain combination of vaccines, nor did the agency say whether or not it would be more effective for people to stick with their original vaccine maker for their booster.
The new authorizations draw on a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which found that there are no safety concerns with mixing boosters and that vaccine combinations were at least as effective in stimulating antibodies as matched vaccines.
In the case of J&J recipients, the NIH found that people actually had a higher boost from mixing either Moderna or Pfizer boosters.
However, some of the scientists who worked on the study said it should not be used to recommend one combination over another because the research was limited.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which determines vaccine recommendations, could issue more guidance on when and whether people should switch vaccine makers for their booster shots.
An advisory panel for the agency is meeting Thursday to discuss the new FDA authorizations and recommendations.
Once the panel makes its decision, the CDC director has the final say on the guidelines. If the agency agrees with the FDA’s decisions, the booster shots could be rolled out as soon as this weekend.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Paris Hilton Urges Lawmakers To Crack Down on Abusive Teen Treatment Facilities
The heiress alleges that she was a victim of abuse in these types of centers for two years and wants to ensure that no child suffers through the same experience.
Paris Hilton Details Abuse Within “Troubled Teen Industry”
Socialite and entrepreneur Paris Hilton spoke outside of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to support the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, which is set to be introduced in the near future.
Hilton joined Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to advocate for the legislation, which aims to create a “bill of rights” for children in treatment and behavioral centers.
The heiress has alleged that she spent two of her teenage years in these types of facilities and was subject to rampant abuse. She is far from alone.
During a press conference, Hilton said that one night when she was 16, she woke up to two large men in her bedroom forcing her out of her house. She said she screamed for help because she thought she was being kidnapped, but her parents watched as she was taken away to a “troubled teen” program.
“Like countless other parents of teens, my parents had searched for solutions to my rebellious behavior,” she explained in an op-ed for The Washington Post this week. “Unfortunately, they fell for the misleading marketing of the ‘troubled teen industry’ — therapeutic boarding schools, military-style boot camps, juvenile justice facilities, behavior modification programs and other facilities that generate roughly $50 billion annually in part by pitching ‘tough love’ as the answer to problematic behavior.”
Hilton said she was sent to four different facilities where she was “physically and psychologically abused.”
“I was strangled, slapped across the face, watched in the shower by male staff, called vulgar names, forced to take medication without a diagnosis, not given a proper education, thrown into solitary confinement in a room covered in scratch marks and smeared in blood and so much more,” she explained during the press conference.
“At Provo Canyon School in Utah, I was given clothes with a number on the tag. I was no longer me, I was only number 127,” she continued. “I was forced to stay indoors for 11 months straight, no sunlight, no fresh air. These were considered privileges.”
Goals of the Accountability for Congregate Care Act
Hilton claims that a lack of transparency and accountability has allowed this structure of abuse to thrive for decades. In some cases, she said it has taken children’s lives. Now, she wants Congress and President Joe Biden to act.
“This bill creates an urgently needed bill of rights to ensure that every child placed into congregate care facilities is provided a safe and humane environment,” Hilton said of the Accountability for Congregate Care Act.
“This bill of rights provides protections that I wasn’t afforded, like access to education, to the outdoors, freedom from abusive treatment, and even the basic right to move and speak freely. If I had these rights and could have exercised them, I would have been saved from over 20 years of trauma and severe PTSD.”
Foster children, children being treated for mental disorders, and other children in youth programs would be impacted by the bill.
Hilton was one of several survivors and advocates who fought for the legislation on Wednesday. Rep. Khanna thanked them for using their stories to fight for change.
“No child should be subjected to solitary confinement, forced labor, or any form of institutional abuse,” he wrote. “Thanks to Paris Hilton, my colleagues & the survivors & advocates who joined us today to discuss how we can hold the congregate care industry accountable.”
While only Democratic legislators are currently sponsoring the bill, Hilton called for a bipartisan effort to fight for the rights of children.
“Ensuring that children are safe from institutional abuse isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Hilton said. “It’s a basic human rights issue that requires immediate attention.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Hill) (NBC News)
Surgeons Successfully Test Pig Kidney Transplant on a Human
The procedure has been hailed as a major scientific breakthrough that could eventually open the door to a renewable source of desperately needed organs.
Surgeons at the NYU Langone Transplant Institute revealed Tuesday that they temporarily attached a kidney from a genetically modified pig to a human patient and found that it worked normally.
The operation was the first of its kind and could one day lead to a vast supply of organs for those who are in severe need. According to the Associated Press, more than 90,000 people in the U.S. are in line for a kidney transplant. Each day, an average of 12 die while waiting.
With the family’s consent, the groundbreaking procedure was performed on a brain-dead patient who was kept alive on a ventilator.
According to the surgeons, the pig used was genetically engineered to grow an organ that wouldn’t produce a sugar that the human immune system attacks, which would then trigger the body to reject the kidney.
The organ was connected to blood vessels on the patient’s upper leg, outside the abdomen, and it was observed for over 54 hours, with doctors finding no signs of rejection.
Concerns and Hurdles Ahead
While the procedure was successful, this doesn’t mean it’ll be available to patients anytime soon. Several questions about long-term functionality remain, and it will still have to go through significant medical and regulatory hurdles.
Details of the procedure haven’t even been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal yet, though there are plans for this.
Experts are also considering the ethical implications of this type of animal-to-human transplant. For some, raising pigs to harvest their organs raises concerns about animal welfare and exploitation. Such medical procedures have already earned criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
“Pigs aren’t spare parts and should never be used as such just because humans are too self-centered to donate their bodies to patients desperate for organ transplants,” PETA said in a statement, according to The New York Times.
On the other side of the debate are people like Dr. Robert Montgomery, the director of the N.Y.U. Langone Transplant Institute who performed the breakthrough procedure in September.
“I certainly understand the concern and what I would say is that currently about 40% of patients who are waiting for a transplant die before they receive one,” he told BBC.
“We use pigs as a source of food, we use pigs for medicinal uses – for valves, for medication. I think it’s not that different.”